Many tales have been told about the HMB Endeavour expedition and, over the years, many ‘firsts’ have been attributed to the voyage.
In more recent times, another very significant ‘first’ has become more widely known—one of the earliest known acts of reconciliation between Europeans and Indigenous Australians.
This story—of turtles and a broken spear—tells of the moment, in 1770, when two very different peoples and cultures clashed but found a way to step back from conflict.
Coming to Waalumbaal Birri
In June 1770, the Endeavour limped into the mouth of Waalumbaal Birri (the Endeavour River).
It had struck a reef several days before, tearing a sizable hole in the hull. The ship required extensive repairs and it was destined to remain on the shore of the river for close to seven weeks while the ship’s carpenter, John Satterley and his team set to work.
Early encounters and exchanges
For the next three weeks the Guugu Yimithirr people, who lived around Waalumbaal Birri, kept their distance.
On 10 July 1770, a few Guugu Yimithirr fishermen paddled an outrigger canoe towards the beached ship, coming so close the crew could throw them ‘gifts’ of nails, cloth and paper. These gifts appeared of little value to the men, who responded far more positively when a small fish was accidentally thrown to them.
According to Joseph Banks,
“They expressd the greatest joy imaginable, and instantly putting off from the ship made signs that they would bring over their comrades, which they very soon did and all four landed near us.”
Tupaia, the Polynesian high priest and navigator who had joined the voyage in Tahiti, went towards the men and gestured for them to lay down their spears and come forward—which they did immediately, sitting on the ground with him. They were soon joined by Captain James Cook and a few others who brought gifts of beads and cloth.
The Guugu Yimithirr men declined an invitation to eat with the voyagers that night but, despite the language barriers, Joseph Banks wrote that things quickly ‘became very easy’ between the two groups.
The following day the fishermen returned with a fish, which they gave to the ship’s crew likely in return for the fish given to them.
Although the ship’s repairs were completed, the annual trade winds and difficulty of finding a clear channel out of the reef made it impossible to leave the sheltered river and the peaceful encounters continued.
A few days later a misunderstanding would bring a halt to the friendly interactions between the two groups.
The ship’s stores had been severely water-damaged when it struck the coral reef and Cook was concerned they would not have sufficient food to survive the scurvy spreading among the crew, let alone get them back to England.
They had limited luck finding food ashore so it had been a welcome sight when an offshore excursion in the pinnace came back with three large green sea turtles. Just one large turtle, weighing between 200–300 pounds, could feed the entire crew.
It became an almost daily task for ‘the turtlers’—the men tasked with hunting these turtles in the pinnace—to find more of this delicious, highly prized food.
“The promise of such plenty of good provisions made our situation appear much less dreadfull; were we obligd to Wait here for another season of the year when the winds might alter we could do it without fear of wanting Provisions: this thought alone put every body in vast spirits.”
On 18 July, after ascending a high hill to look for a clear passage, Cook returned to the Endeavour to find several Guugu Yimithirr people aboard. Of all the things that could have caught their attention on the unfamiliar vessel, the officers reported that they were most interested in the 12 turtles on the ship’s deck.
Guugu Yimithirr elder and self-proclaimed Bama historian Alberta Hornsby recounts the story from the perspective of her ancestors,
“So when they saw these turtles – you know, 12 – it was just so many turtles. They didn’t do anything on that first day, but they marched off. The next day there were ten men who came. They’d left their spears before they boarded the ship again. And they demanded two turtles and that was refused. But this really angered our men.”
A series of disagreements broke out, with the Guugu Yimithirr men trying to drag the turtles overboard and the crew hauling them back. With no other food at his immediate disposal, Cook tried offering bread in place of the turtles but his offer was swiftly refused.
The Guugu Yimithirr had no need to stockpile food, only catching and eating what they needed. The dispute was about far more than this. The turtles had been taken from a sacred part of the reef, which could only be accessed by certain clan groups.
Unwittingly, Cook’s crew had not respected the Guugu Yimithirr customs and laws.
The Guugu Yimithirr men returned to the shore, picked up their spears and then set fire to the dry grass surrounding the Endeavour’s camp.
As the fire took hold Cook’s men did what they could to save any items, including Tupaia’s tent. Little was damaged although a piglet was scorched to death.
But when another fire was lit near some washing and nets, Cook loaded and fired his musket, wounding a Guugu Yimithirr man.
Cook could not have grasped the full implications of his action in the eyes of the Guugu Yimithirr. Not only had they taken the turtles, but the area where the ship was beached was, in fact, part of a ‘neutral zone’.
It was a piece of clan land called Waymbuurr that was shared by five surrounding groups. Waymbuurr was a place where the clans would meet, share resources, resolve disputes and participate in ceremonies. It was also where women would give birth. It was not a place for spilling blood in anger.
The little old man
Cook’s men put out the fires, and the Guugu Yimithirr men ran off. They did not go far and, hearing their voices, Cook, Banks and others went to find them.
Cook wrote in his journal:
“Went to look for them and very soon met them comeing towards us. As they had each 4 or 5 darts [spears] a piece and not knowing their intention we seized upon six or seven of their first darts we met with, this alarmed them so much that they all made off.”
They followed the Guugu Yimithirr men for about a kilometre before both groups sat down, more than 100 metres apart, on some rocks.
Banks describes ‘a little old man’ who had spoken to them after the fires were started, saying
“The little old man now came forward to us carrying in his hand a lance [spear] without a point. He halted several times and as he stood employd himself in collecting the moisture from under his arm pit with his finger which he every time drew through his mouth. We beckond to him to come: he then spoke to the others who all laid their lances against a tree and leaving them came forwards likewise and soon came quite to us.”
Cook describes the same incident saying,
“After some little unintelligible conversation had pass’d they lay down their darts and came to us in a very friendly manner; we now returnd the darts we had taken from them which reconciled every thing.”
Hornsby explains the significance of the moment,
“It indicated something that Cook would understand - they didn’t want any more fighting. He performed a gesture, a custom called ngalangundaama, which means collecting your sweat from under your arms, which is a very personal gesture. Usually this sweat is rubbed over people. But he grabbed it from under his arms, he blew it in the air, and mumbled some words as he came towards Cook. And it's just described so simply in the journals but the intention of bringing about peace was just so significant.”
Cook and Banks may not have had the cultural knowledge to fully understand the old man’s gesture and intention to bring about peace but they did respond in kind by returning the spears.
The man who had been injured by Cook’s musket was not seen again but four new Guugu Yimithirr men had appeared and wanted to see the ship, so after introductions the group of 11 headed back to the encampment.
According to Banks, ‘they making signs as they came along that they would not set fire to the grass again and we distributing musquet balls among them and by our signs explaining their effect.’ The meeting occurred on the site of what is now known as Reconciliation Rocks.
In the film ‘The Message,’ from the National Museum of Australia’s Endeavour Voyage exhibition, artist Alison Page explores the encounter from the perspective of the Guguu Yimithirr.’ She states,
“I could see why [the people at Cooktown] were so proud of their encounters with Cook: their ancestors’ environmental activism when Cook and his men over-fished, followed by the extraordinary act of leadership shown by the little old man breaking a spear and offering it to the visitors as a gesture of peace.”
Leaving Waalumbaal Birri
Ten days later, after a 48 days at Waalumbaal Birri, the HMB Endeavour finally left. As they left the crew noted,
“all the hills about us for many miles were on fire and at night made the most beautifull appearance imaginable”
They had no way of knowing that the Guugu Yimithirr had lit the fires to cleanse the clan area known as Waymbuurr.
Today, despite the lack of clear understanding between them, we can appreciate the importance of the reconciliation that took place to prevent fighting and return weapons peacefully.
We can only wonder if the voyagers and the Guugu Yimithirr had been able to truly understand each other’s language and cultural values whether they may have reached a deeper reconciliation.
Australia’s first reconciliation is re-enacted by the Cooktown Re-Enactment Association every year. Find out more about the Endeavour’s stay in Cooktown.